Kansas senators consider requiring public schools to provide in-person learning option by late March

A bill championed by Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, would require schools to provide an in-person options for all students by March 26. The bill's provisions appear to continue indefinitely. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas legislators are considering a bill that would seize the authority from elected school boards to determine what learning options must be available to children statewide.

The bill heard Thursday requires Kansas schools to offer a full-time, in-person instruction option for every student beginning March 26. The proposal appears in contrast to action taken by the Legislature during the 2020 special session to put this power in the hands of local officials amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, sponsored the bill. He said the transition to remote learning in March was warranted, but now is the time to ensure children have access to the physical classroom.

“These kids need to have an in-person engagement and a relationship with a teacher,” Masterson said. “It didn’t say every school has to have every kid in person, but every kid needs to have that option.”

Supporters of the “back to school” bill noted the negative impact remote learning has for many children educationally and emotionally and the federal funding available to help transition to an in-person class. However, public education advocates were concerned this bill would restrict school flexibility in the future.

Opponents of the bill heard in the House Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said these decisions should be left up to local boards as prescribed at the beginning of the pandemic. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, and other members of the Senate Education Committee said the measure was not a mandate but a “nudge.” The bill orders schools to provide the option, but there is no penalty for noncompliance.

Laura Klingensmith, a Johnson County resident, told legislators her daughter’s friends and classmates were struggling with the social isolation of remote learning. Some have been prescribed antidepressants, and in some extreme cases, the situation has led to suicide, she said.

“Parents have returned to work, yet the child left home alone online all day by themselves, isolated from social interaction,” Klingensmith said. “Thank you for working to put a stop to this madness and return our children to having the option for in-person learning.”

While a safe return to in-person learning is wanted by all, the bill appears to restrict learning modalities indefinitely, said Mark Tallman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards. He also raised concerns the bill requires “full-time” learning.

“We might have a pandemic that was more likely to affect students as possible. It doesn’t make exceptions for weather emergencies,” Tallman said.

He also pointed out that some districts currently offer summer classes that are not full time.

Tallman and other proponents argued the decision was best left up to local school boards as the Legislature dictated at the outset of the pandemic. Lara Bors, president of the Garden City Unified School District Board of Education, said these boards are more aware of the conditions within the school and community.

“I would encourage you to allow the State Board of Education to follow their constitutional directive to supervise the public schools of this state as they move forward,” Bors said. “They are in the best position to make the necessary adjustments as information regarding this virus is made known to us because, even a year later, information is changing on a daily basis, and changes must be made as nimbly as possible.”

However, Republican legislators on the panel questioned if school boards were listening to feedback from parents and doing what is in the best interest of Kansas students. Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, asked opponents of the measure why they did not emphasize the needs of students in their testimony.

“The teachers aren’t the problem. The problem is the lack of focus on the decision-makers at the local level on focusing on the needs of the students, instead of the needs of the system,” Erickson said.

Tallman said school boards are doing their best to balance student’s needs and the needs of the entire community.